Saturday, October 23, 2010

Further thoughts on social studies and social theory: letters from Beecher, Wolff, Strong and Bernstein

Jon Beecher who now teaches history at Santa Cruz recalls that Alexander Gerschenkron, not Wassily Leontieff, gave the beautiful clock speech and the very striking silence of the faculty in the aftermath. See here. Someone who worked in both history and lit and social studies (one who isn't into disciplinary boundaries), Jon has a fine, self-deprecating sense of the complexity of everyone involved and speaks with some sadness of how Gerschenkron, a thoughtful man about Russian and German economic and social history as well as a Menshevik and hence a Marxian of one kind see here,* probably did not oppose the Vietnam war and in any case, had no sympathy with student opposition. Gerschenkron spoke out of a certain hubris and fear which denied wanton American murder in Vietnam (it took a long time for some faculty members to adjust to what students, having as Zen Buddhists say, a beginner’s mind, just saw). In contrast to Hannah Arendt who cured hysteria at the New School, Gerschenkron could not see that “these are not criminals, they are students.” Much European education and even American is bizarrely hierarchical, emphasizing the specialness or “somebodiness” of the professor and “his voice” and deemphasizing conversation. In contrast to taking notes on a “great professor”’s lectures, teaching is a form of mutual engagement and learning. This distinction perhaps reflects Gerschenkron’s and much of the then Harvard faculty’s failure: an absence of empathy or compassion even for those whom they once were, whom they had engaged themselves and were charged to teach, and of course, from whom, not only about Vietnam, they might also sometimes have learned.

By spelling out what expunging is, Robert Paul Wolff’s note also emblemizes just how arrogant – and to ordinary human beings comical - Harvard aspires to be. But what if the faculty member charged with remembering the name of the expunged, stubs his toe, misses a meeting, and the eschewed one sneaks again into Harvard Yard?

In Jon’s spirit, I would like to focus on some of the weaknesses that we students had as young people, making it up, a la Indiana Jones, as we went along. But, first, in retrospect, it is now obvious that the student protestors were right that the American war in Vietnam was murderous, even genocidal (three million Vietnamese dead) and self-destructive, betraying everything decent about American society. Those who blindly stood for order – including preserving the order of Harvard as the developer of napalm, a place of preparation for war criminals (Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, Sam Huntington on whom I will comment below, et al), a beneficiary of war contracts, and a trainer of officers in ROTC, inter alia – were wrong. That this wrong sometimes became extreme, pompous, silly and sad – Pusey’s speech about the barbarians who wanted to tear Harvard down stone by stone and dance in the rubble after the Dow sit-in here, or Gerschenkron’s spitting out “beat them, beat them, beat them” – now vanished as a kind of miasma, should not obscure the general obsession among the powerful with America’s and Harvard’s being “right.” A charming song by the Radical Arts Troupe about the punishments committee – the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities” - caught their tone: “We’re right, you’re responsible…”

To be a large success in foreign policy at Harvard – to be a person the President asks to serve, in Amy Gutmann’s words at the Social Studies celebration - one must largely believe in US imperialism (those like Steve Walt or Stanley Hoffmann, who are often subtle critics, intellectuals and for that matter patriots, people for whom there are sometimes acts the government commits that they will not support, are not “selected”). One can think the Vietnam war was a mistake, and perhaps Iraq – though one must leave these views out and commit to the (fortunately, somewhat reduced) occupation. But one cannot think, with say Chalmers Johnson, that the empire of bases and American militarism, then and now, threatens to destroy what is decent here (The Sorrows of Empire, ch. 6) or that torture is, if one exists, a crime that must be investigated. Put differently, Harvard’s and other leading academics have elaborated the framework for foreign policy out of which the Vietnam war and the Iraq war both came, not to mention the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the relentless use of drones in Pakistan (see here). Intellectuals who are sometimes critics – faculty and students – are ignored or if trouble ensues, harassed and silenced. Certainly, no systemic theory of what is wrong with the greatest imperial power can enter either the government or commercial “public” discourse, even from the point of view of trying to turn the great ship, i.e. to transform America into a green manufacturing economy rather than a militarist casino.

But though right about the war, I and others were not nonviolent in outlook and had no idea of changing the system but trying to salvage even the people who had run it. Nonetheless what we were punished for, as action, was not violent – even the seizing of University Hall was a form of trespass and involved no violence (“touching an elbow” was as extreme as it got). In retrospect, given the comparative ferocity of the Harvard response (police brutality and punishments committees, which in my case and others, never even bothered to inform us that we were charged), what we did was shockingly little.** One has to work quite hard to empathize with the threat to the self-importance of Harvard which several thousand dissident students represented. I had been on the periphery of the civil rights movement but was more drawn to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King. I had not then read “Breaking the Silence,” King’s speech on Vietnam. See here and here. But change the name Vietnam to Iraq, as my student April Guy did in studying that speech, and the words live today as vividly as they lived then. In 500 years, if humans are around to learn of American English, King’s words will be read. To compare these words with those of most international relations specialists about war – few outlast the newspapers, and some, for instance those I will relate below, it would perhaps be kinder to forget - is unfair.***

What King might have given us – and Mandela and Tutu go further in this – is a sense of how to take in the point of view of others and stop them without trying – even in words – to wipe them out. It is a larger sense – one that ought to occur to social leaders of the prevailing sort, but self-importance and hierarchy get in the way – of making things right and, at the same time, healing wounds. As a student, I rather liked Gerschenkron, and am saddened by where he found himself – a grotesque figure for whom one must apologize if one is of such a mind – “of course he was traumatized by the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.”**** And what can one say of a faculty meeting that was “silent” before a mere image of students as a hippie oaf smashing a beautiful clock, President Pusey having actually smashed people’s bodies…?

I know many faculty members opposed the war and some opposed Harvard’s brutality - I particularly remember Bill Alfred, who had taught me Beowulf and the Seafarer making it a point to talk with me about it - but for the majority, the privilege was too great, the lack of concern with students, except those one personally taught, too accentuated. Again, this makes Michael Walzer and Marty Peretz, as Michael said at the Social Studies afternoon meeting, stand out for decency. See here.

For those who cannot yet help themselves – it is surely not good to make of oneself the caricature that Pusey or Gerschenkron made - perhaps the point of nonviolence is to see them as human, to give them an honorable way out, to heal wounds where one can. Of course, one has to stop them first and stop the war through mass militant non-cooperation – and trespass and strikes can be a good and coercive first step toward doing so (again, contrast the violent coerciveness of war). That is nonviolent tension, as King rightly says in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail; it is not the same as violent tension.

After the beatings at University Hall, Jon remembers Barrington Moore at the university wide student and (some) faculty meeting that called the strike. Barry spoke of the importance of not harassing faculty members who refused to participate. Moore’s was a well taken point, a sense that though university life had come apart, one might still work with others, certainly not block those who were neither strikers nor “enemies” (harassing them would have been a good way to make “enemies”). I might add: students could certainly vote with their feet, i.e not go to classes, and did. There is of course an additional issue here about the limits of compassion. Hans Morganthau, the international relations specialist and opponent of the Vietnam war (his greatest moment), had a dark and apt view. He once remarked that other faculty members would come to his office at Chicago and say they agreed with him, but remained, for the small favors of academic privilege, silent in public. He had a certain contempt, I think, for them; there are things which require especially those who work in such areas – or are citizens - to stand up. And Morganthau was fiercely attacked by President Johnson and John Roche (they campaigned against “those pointy-heads in Berkeley and Cambridge and that German in the Midwest…” See my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? , ch. 2. But recognition of someone’s lack of moral fiber just then – one can always hope that they will grow or show up some other time - is hardly the same as harassment.

Still, Barry’s point, I might say in retrospect, is on behalf of nonviolence as well as decency and political judgment. Many of us felt at the time a desire to isolate those who were responsible for the war effort, and to talk with, certainly not go after, those who were not. In fact, no one that I knew in SDS had the attitude Moore worried about. During the strike, I went briefly to Samuel Huntington’s class with several other graduate students to try to argue with him about the war. He had toured South Vietnam for the State Department and given a statement to the Harvard Crimson – the student newspaper - about his findings. He mentioned the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dei, two Buddhist “sects” (he could have learned from Thich Nat Hanh, but was not interested in the opposition) which might “overburden the government with their demands.” I had thought he was going to suggest a potential pluralism in Vietnam as a basis for democracy a la ordinary political science. Instead, it was Sam’s distinctive view of “order” in “changing societies.” Government is a ‘frail thing,’ likely to collapse at the slightest opposition Sam worried, for instance, people saying there or here: stop napalming children. Had his famous forebear, also named Samuel Huntington, followed Sam’s advice, there would have been no American Revolution.*****

“[Fortunately] we are saved from this [disorder]“ Sam said, “by the style of Marshal Ky. He wears purple scarves, he flies jet planes, and he has made a deep impression upon the public consciousness.” I wrote a leaflet criticizing Sam's position and so remember his words vividly. Sam perhaps forget that the CIA organized the assassination of the American puppet Ngo Dinh Diem – something which, as the Errol Morris film “The Fog of War” shows, President John Kennedy did not know of and was presciently frightened – his own death near upon him – and saddened by. Sam failed to recall that Ky flew jets for the French army which had been defeated by the peasant movement led by Ho Chi Minh. The “deep impression” Ky made upon the Vietnamese public was not a good one. That Huntington was sent on tour by the State Department or taught courses at Harvard might be thought funny. Perhaps wisely, Sam would not engage with students.

But he could gild the lily. In the Crimson, Sam even suggested that peasants napalmed in the Vietnam countryside – or whose farms had been subjected to American ecocide to prevent their giving support to the National Liberation Front - had fled to the city as a voluntary matter. “Saigon had been hit hard” – note Sam's alliteration – “by the Honda revolution.” Every peasant fled his home to tool around on motorbikes and be cool in the bright lights of Saigon. Guess Sam never went to a refugee camp. To the Johnson administration and in the Crimson, he called this “urbanization.” *****

When someone stood up and asked a question in the class, Sam walked out. Even a bad answer (it doesn’t seem he had much else) would have been better.

Two years later, at a conference on East Asian Studies, confronted by Concerned Asian scholars on panels and in the audience, Huntington was forced to admit that forced urbanization was a more accurate way of putting it. But such East Asian scholars did not become the scribe for the Trilateral Commisson which published Huntington’s “Democratic Distemper” (1976), arguing for bringing order from changing societies home to America (in the last sentence, Sam even threatens a police state: “Democracy will have a longer life if it has a more moderate existence,” in other words, blacks, postal workers, students, women, shut up…), nor National Security Advisor in Jimmy Carter’s administration. Imitative of Carter’s concerns, Huntington even wrote the draft of Carter’s 1976 campaign speech on “human rights.” Though a Democrat who might have learned from Carter’s affection for such rights and notable, post-Presidential career, Sam was, instead, a notable inventor of reactionary slogans, for instance “the clash of civilizations,” realized by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Sam did not have the luck, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, to recognize the importance of freedom of conscience as an American moral insight, a way of inspiring over time, admiration for America in every decent person. When I say that Harvard plays a big role in legitimizing and even shaping reaction, Sam’s career provides one notable paradigm.

As an afterthought, however, Huntington did write an interesting article on Bush’s unipolarism, suggesting that it would force others to balance against it…

A year before the strike, I had done well on comps and word traveled around the department. When I came in to the office in Littauer, Huntington, who was then the chair and whom I had never met, offered through the department secretary, to make me his teaching assistant. I said yes (thinking we might have a debate). The next time I came back to see about it, the offer had been rescinded. Many years later, I met Sam briefly with Michael Walzer at an American Political Science Association meeting (Michael, as a junior colleague, felt some affection for Sam, showing that there must be mitigating stories)…

Jon also speaks amusingly of Marty Peretz giving a lecture in social studies, under the scrutiny of Barry Moore and Stanley Hoffmann (Hoffmann was often kinder to graduate student ineptitude than Moore) and suggests that, perhaps his own was as bad. I think we have all given such lectures, particularly to an august company (I remember being at formidable Cornell philosophy department talk on a grant some years later and sitting silently with the graduate students while senior people, for instance, took apart the argument of a well-known and self-important Oxford professor. No students entered the conversation; me either…). What Marty did then, as Michael insisted, was not bad. It is a shame that as the owner of the New Republic and adherent to whatever Likud wants, he has taken the path of reaction, starting with the Contras, and espoused so fierce a racism that it has earned him notoriety.

Anya Bernstein wrote me of her participation as a freshman in a spring-long sit-in in Hamilton Hall against Barnard investments in South Africa (one must be grateful for the wisdom at Columbia and Barnard then, perhaps having learned from the harms done by calling the police during the strike of 1968). Some of her current students – and social studies students generally – led the way in protesting Peretz. She particularly emphasized an attractive aspect of the way Harvard has spent its money in recruiting a diverse, international student body, and is dedicated to working with students to make it possible – the transition is sometimes a harsh one, one across universes and into a, at first look, particularly unhelpful environment – to complement admission with personal and academic attention:

“Harvard has its failings, but one success is the fact that it is now a true meritocracy. My students come from all over the world, identify with every possible race and ethnicity and, crucially, come from all economic backgrounds. In my mind, Harvard’s greatest achievement in a very long time is its financial aid initiative (HFAI), through which students whose families earn $60,000 or less attend for free, and there is considerable aid for those whose families make even twice that. 25% of Harvard students now come from families making less than $80,000 a year.”

It is good to take in that Harvard has gone so far in recruiting a multiracial and diverse elite. This must also have happened under Larry Summers’ leadership for which, despite his racism and sexism, he deserves recognition. With the election of President Obama, one might think that this direction is the future of a decent American democracy, even as a capitalist, hierarchical, and not often sustaining of a common good one. That Obama, the very intelligent and decent multiracial candidate, was elected in the land of slavery and segregation struck the world as a kind of miracle, a renewal of American democracy after the darkness of Cheney. But perhaps the sense of fragility in America – because of the tidal wave of anti-Islamic, anti-Arab racism, the hysteria in favor of big business and banks increasingly grinding down every one else (the Republican theme-song: tax relief for the ultra-rich), the Supreme “Court” licensing of further flooding of money into “elections” as well as a certain fecklessness or adoption of reactionary policies by Obama and the Democrats – deserves also to be emphasized. America is in decline, and if it goes further to the authoritarian Right, this change in the elite may well be subverted.

Citing Clark Kerr, President of the University of California during the 1964 “Free Speech Movement,” at Berkeley, Tracy Strong also writes of the increasing isolation of the “stars” in modern academia as intellectuals connected by a parking lot. As Tracy says of the University of California, this mutual isolation is growing. In a memorable talk at my first meeting in Social Studies, Stanley Hoffmann once said drily of Harvard, “You will see the stars and discover that many of the stars are dead.” While “stars” may appear at great distances in beautiful constellations, they are not otherwise interactive…

My brother Wally once chaired the four biology departments at Harvard and got support for the building of a lunch room so that individuals could meet rather than simply, in their solipsism, go on. He had to fight to do it. Everyone wanted the valuable space for laboratories. Talk - who needs it? Particularly in imitation sciences – I mean the social sciences – dead stars only and rarely “revive” if something disturbs their complacency…

It was conversation, and even seeking the truth, that social studies then and now, to some extent, represents. Wolff’s relationship with Moore as senior tutor probably shaped him – see here - as my extensive writing once upon a time, on Marx and Weber in the context of German democratic revolution and German imperialism and Nazism, shaped me.****** Each of us and others have journeyed far, but the impetus was unmistakably in Social Studies. Bob spoke jokingly of the 50th gathering of Social Studies as the greatest gathering of social theorists since the last garden party of the Frankfurt School before the night of Nazism closed over Germany. This comparison is too grand. Still, the now multiracial Social Studies stands for something (the 100 or so students who demonstrated, four-fifths of whom were nonwhite). In 2010, Social Studies seems allergic to the racism of Marty Peretz and today’s America, even though Harvard took the money. Some of its members and graduates will continue to think deeply about social problems and how to understand them, will go beyond the needs of the elite (it is always a danger of universities that they encourage students and faculty, to some extent, to seek the truth). The program itself sought to accommodate the protest, not to throw demonstrators into the outer darkness (the latter is, however, not a bad place to figure some things out). This is hopeful.

“Dear Alan, My memory of "the Most Amazing Thing" is a little different from Tracy's. I think it was Alexander Gerschenkron (whose politics were more conservative than Leontieff's) who told the story. The suitor for the hand of the beautiful princess offers a wonderfully intricate clock to the king. The king is just about to announce the engagement of the princess to the clockmaker when another suitor enters the throne room. He has long hair, is sloppily dressed, and brings with him nothing more than a hammer. He then raises the hammer and brings it down on the first suitor's clock, smashing the delicate mechanism. The king then announces that the second suitor, the young man with the hammer, has indeed done the Most Amazing Thing and announces that it is he whom the princess shall marry. Gerschenkron told this story to an absolutely silent meeting of the Harvard faculty in University Hall, and his point, as I remember it, was that in making any concessions to student radicals, the faculty would be playing the role of the king, sanctioning and in fact celebrating destructive violence. I greatly respected Alexander Gerschenkron. It didn't surprise me that Richard Pipes regarded student radicals, including those who eventually occupied University Hall, as a bunch of brownshirts. But it made me sad to think that someone of Gerschenkron's intellectual distinction could find absolutely no justification or sense in the student protest at the time. . . .The one wholly positive memory I have of that time is of the strike meeting held in Harvard Stadium where thousands (literally) of students and faculty voted to go on strike and where Barrington Moore spoke eloquently, I thought, against attempts to shout down or silence faculty members who refused to strike.

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your blog. I'm not normally a blog reader, but I do read yours with delight (often) and interest (always). And i've been fascinated by your account of the turmoil in Harvard's Social Studies program. I was a tutor in History and Lit in the late 60s. But for one year (1965-66) I also taught (with Ed Leites) the Social Studies sophomore tutorial. I did it because I wanted to do the reading. but I found much more than that: an amazing group of tutors (Sue Berger, Dom LaCapra, Paul Robinson among others) and wonderful senior faculty support from Stanley Hoffmann and Barrington Moore. Marty Peretz was a tutor that year too, and during the spring each of us gave a lecture. I would say that Marty's was a lot of hot air, except that, in its own way, mine was just as bad. . . .Yours, Jon (Beecher)”

“Dear Alan,

I read this very fast [see here] because I am deeply involved in a multi-part post on my own blog, but I wanted to take a moment to say that I think it is very fine.

One tiny bit of information that is eerily significant. When Harvard ‘expunges’ a student, it does not simply expel him or her. It literally removes all recorded mention of the person from its records,so that the person ceases to exist. It then assigns a senior faculty member to remember the name, lest the expunged person apply for readmission!! If that isn’t a perfect metaphor for an Orwellian world, I don't know what is.


“Dear Alan,

Alas, Leontieff accused the students of wanting to smash the clock...Kerr also defined the multiversity as ‘a group of highly intelligent beings united by a common concern for parking’ which though cynical (and not really right about UC in those days) seems more and more prescient.


*There are many and diverse kinds of Marxian social analysis, as of any important kind of political and social theory.

**I was “separated for two years” in a later round of punishments. We boycotted the hearings collectively. I knew indirectly that I was being charged, but never received any formal notification, even a letter. I found out both about the charges and my punishment reading the Crimson. This is one of many reasons why I view honoring the rule of law as of cardinal importance…

***I exempt, for example, Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich and Noam Chomsky from this point

****Gerschenkron ignored much in America. President Wilson financed White armies killing and burning in Russia; much of America was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan – Woodrow Wilson in the White House, Harry Truman in the Pendergast machine in Missouri, Mayor Stapleton in Denver et al; in the 1930s, workers had to seize the GM Flint plant for 44 days, machine guns trained on it by the national guard, to get a union…In retrospect, Gerschenkron seems an embittered man, unable to see in America what he once, as a Menshevik, opposed in tsarist Russia…

*****As my Emancipation and Independence, Chicago, 2011 will show, Huntington pledged to Ben Franklin after the Revolution that he would act to abolish slavery. He was clearly a dangerous and disorderly person.

******Unsurprisingly, as an academic serving the State Department, Huntington replaced, for Lyndon Johnson, Hans Morganthau who in 1964 had told the truth directly to the President, and subsequently in anti-war teach-ins around the Midwest. But a straight-man, Huntington spoke what the President demanded to hear.

*******Marx’s Politics and Democratic Individuality, part 3, illustrate these investigations.

1 comment:

Jon Burack said...

I see this statement above, on Gerschenkron's supposed inability to understand, for instance, that the "Ku Klux Klan dominated much of America." Even for the 1920s, this is absurd. For 1968, when Gerschenkron was responding to unbridled student arrogance? No one need support the Vietnam War in the least to see how destructive was much of what the students did to university life in those years. The war is long over, but we are still paying a heavy price for that.

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